Bruce Cannon has all the right strings attached. Good thing too, because the multi-talented, Harlem-born Cannon is the artistic director of the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater. Cannon and his talented group of artists combine the classic skill of puppetry–particularly marionettes–with the best theater technology. Cannon knew at age 9 that he had a gift for the stage.
After graduating in 1974 from Harlem’s High School of Music and Art, Cannon headed to Virginia State but returned to New York a year later, still not knowing what he wanted to do.
“I found myself back home just hanging out and my mom said, ‘No. This is not going to work. You either go back to school or start looking for a job,’” Cannon told the AmNews.
He was in no hurry to go back to school, so he began looking for work and signed up for the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program. He got an interview with the city’s parks department. His background in the arts and his training as a classical trombonist made him a perfect fit for the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater, which is currently the product of a partnership between the City of New York Parks and Recreation and City Parks Foundation. The director of the theater just happened to be in the building, and 19-year-old Cannon got the assignment.
The first production he worked in was “Peter Pan.” Cannon’s job was keeping a spotlight on Peter Pan. Soon he was working the puppets himself and the rest, as they say, is history. Cannon became the director of the Swedish Cottage in 1997 and has held the job ever since. He is responsible for everything from operations, facility management and musical direction to auditioning and training puppeteers. Cannon does it all, but his specialty is marionettes, which require a high level of manual dexterity.
“You’re working strings. Most puppets require half-movements, but with a marionette, you have to know where all the strings go and what each string controls. It’s like playing an instrument. You have to know what string for what movement, and while you’re executing one move, you’re constantly preparing for the next move. It’s a constant state of anticipation. My musical training really served me in that respect,” Cannon said.
There are schools where one can learn the art of puppetry through a degree program, but interestingly enough, they do not teach marionettes. Cannon trained many of his puppeteers. Some went to Europe to further their skills.
“Many puppeteers, like myself, learned the old-fashioned way–through an apprentice program. You get hired with a puppet company and learn from master puppeteers. When I learned, all the puppeteers already had 15 or 20 years behind them. I was the new kid on the block. Now I’m the old guy,” he said.
“I’m training the puppeteers who come in now. Most go into film because now they are using more puppets in film and animation. We’re just the old, European style of classic puppetry that’s almost gone out of vogue,” Cannon said.
How does he keep today’s tech-savvy, plugged-in generation interested in puppets? In his new show, called “Little Red’s Hood,” the gadget-happy heroine is all over the place, but there is a wolf on the loose.
“Little Red buys some cupcakes online for Grandma but is so busy texting on her phone that she doesn’t realize that Grandma is gone. Her mission is to get the cupcakes to Grandma. She uses her GPS and social media to help. All the references are there. The whole story is about kids not paying attention. Meanwhile, the wolf is following her to get the cupcakes.
“I was curious to see how the little ones would react to it. There is enough physical stuff to make them laugh, but there is also clearly a message about paying attention and not just being on your phone,” he said.
Cannon uses the art of his puppetry to reach today’s contemporary audience.
“We took Cinderella to Brazil, calling it ‘Cinderella Samba.’ I did a holiday show called ‘The Three Bears Holiday Bash’ and something called ‘Three,’ which are all modern. We do the classics, but I think it’s important for them to see new versions and multicultural characters. It’s so empowering. It’s important for kids to see puppeteers of color; when kids see me doing puppets, they say, ‘I can do that too,’” he said.
Cannon is busy running the show at the Swedish Cottage, but he also does Puppets in the Park, an outreach program and workshop for kids that he started in 1984. There’s another program called One Shots, where kids can take a puppet with them. Cannon also does comprehensive workshops, which are mini versions of the professional experience. Kids work on a story, make the puppets and do the voices. It all culminates with a performance.
Cannon loves his job and his audience. His performances have won him rave reviews from the New York Times and others, as well as legions of fans. He’s brought his puppet magic to Harlem Week, Lincoln Center, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, the Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the Henry Street Settlement, the Harlem School of the Arts, Dance Theater of Harlem, the Apollo Theatre, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the Newark Museum, Schomburg library, Barnes & Noble and the Audelco Awards.
Cannon performs a popular one-man show called “Harlem River Drive.” The show, which features contemporary characters, themes and music, is done cabaret-style with Cannon dressed in all black.
“‘Harlem River Drive’ is interesting because it’s a history of Harlem and a cabaret show all in one. I would like to do a film version of it with multimedia and a back screen where you could actually see all the landmarks and places that are mentioned. I find that if you give kids that much history-lecturing in a classroom setting, it would be so boring, but here you’ve got 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds literally listening to history. I think it’s a powerful way to teach children,” he concluded.
To learn more about performances at the Swedish Cottage, visit www.cityparksfoundation.org/arts/swedish-cottage-marionette-theatre.
Learn more about Bruce Cannon’s work at ww.brucecannonspuppetry.com.